By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau
NEW LEXINGTON, O. — Ohio may be fixing up some of its most dilapidated school buildings, but it is moving far too slowly to get to all of those that need repairs, an attorney for a coalition of school districts argued here yesterday.
In more than four hours of cross-examination, attorney John Birath accused Ohio School Facilities Commission executive director, Randy Fischer, of not recognizing the size of the facilities problem.
“There are many, many serious issues that are not being addressed,” Mr. Birath said, from collapsing walls to electrical safety problems.
Mr. Fischer was testifying as a state witness in the school-funding hearings, being held here to determine if Ohio’s methods of paying for education are fair to poorer parts of the state. It was in this poor Perry County village in 1994 when those methods were first declared unconstitutional; Common Pleas Judge Linton Lewis is holding these hearings to determine if the state has done enough to make the system more fair.
Part of the state’s arguments is that it has committed more than $100 million in the last year to building new schools or renovating old ones, mostly in the state’s poorest school districts.
But Mr. Birath argued that the state would have to do much more to fix Ohio’s school buildings, which at least one study has rated the nation’s worst.
He spent much of his time discussing four reports written by private construction firms the state hired to inspect the buildings of school districts that have applied for a state repair program. The attorney said those reports contain damning indictments of the current facilities funding system.
For example, they reported that between seven and 10 per cent of the 254 districts the companies visited had structural problems in classroom buildings that amounted to “imminent dangers” to children’s safety. Included in these: walls ready to collapse or materials falling off buildings.
Mr. Fischer argued that the construction companies had a different idea of what constituted “imminent danger.” He said the percentage is more like 1 or 2 per cent, and that all of them have been or are being repaired.
One of the reports stated that, of the 57 districts that the company had visited, none had fire protection systems that met state codes. Some had no smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, or battery backup for their fire alarms.
Mr. Fischer replied “being up to code is an unattainable goal” because of recent changes in state fire safety requirements. When Mr. Birath pressured Mr. Fischer by asking if he would want his nieces or nephews to attend classes at a school without smoke detectors, he replied, after a lengthy pause: “I went to school in buildings without smoke detectors, and so did you. I did not consider that to be an unsafe environment.”
Under questioning by a state attorney, Mr. Fischer said he was upset by the implication “that the Ohio School Facilities Commission is cold hearted and does not care about the conditions that children go to school in, and that is not the case at all.”
Mr. Birath replied by stating that he was not implying anything about Mr. Fischer, but that “you can only do what the General Assembly of the state of Ohio says you can do,” and that the levels of funding were simply too low.
Mr. Birath pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements – ranging from handicap access to electrical systems repairs – that state officials agree are needed, but which will likely not be funded for years or more, as the state works its way up from its top priorities, the poorest school districts.
“It would take 14 years to get through [the poorest half of the state’s schools] at the rate they’re going at, assuming they get the money,” he said.
The state called its final witness yesterday, and the coalition of school districts will begin its case on Monday. The hearings will continue through the end of next week.